A Critic at Large

Reconsidering his role at the 2008 Whitney Biennial.

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It’s not a good time to be an art critic. Much of what’s written is pale. It is weak and descriptive to no purpose. Or at the other extreme it is pure jargon, laughable if read aloud to the uninitiated. Junk. In fact, if art critics actually believed that anything we said or wrote mattered, we would probably be shooting ourselves in droves.

It is, however, a good time to be an artist. The heroic days of hard drinking at the Cedar and a fistfight with Jackson Pollock are over. But on the positive side of the ledger you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want and there’s someone out there fully prepared to take it seriously. Some lament this fact; they want a criterion back. I don’t. Critics are the owls of Minerva, flying around at dusk. We don’t command and determine the facts, and never did. Merely do we pick at corpses, sorting a few things out, making explicit what was already there, etc., etc.

The 2008 Whitney Biennial is a feast and a free-for-all as far as the artists are concerned. You can make a realist painting (for God’s sake) or you can stick some poles and a stretch of metal fence into a block of cement. The latter work being, I mention as an aside, genuinely thrilling in that it successfully evades all possibility of being pleasing to the eye. Of course beauty is an acceptable approach as well. Mitzi Pederson arranges broken pieces of cinder blocks in a way that satisfies the brain. I think it has something to do with the tension between chunkiness and balance. It’s just nice.

But it is very difficult to say what the work relates to or where it is coming from. Even a knowledge of art history antique and contemporary won’t help you much. These days art isn’t an insiders game so much as a contest in private languages. The artists are often working in their own heads and they don’t feel much compulsion to translate.

This puts the critic and the curator in a hilarious position. Stripped of most of our authority, we fall back on tortured syntax and dubious vocabulary in order merely to say, in essence, that it is tough to talk about art these days. Here’s a typical sentence from the Biennial catalog: “Charles Long’s interest in opposing formal and metaphysical forces informs a complex sculptural lexicon marked by radical stylistic shifts that are difficult to categorize.”

The simple translation of this sentence: “Help, I don’t really know what Charles Long is doing or why.”

One of the knocks on critics after we stopped seeing ourselves as tasked primarily with saying whether works are “good” or “bad” is that we threw away our only truly meaningful tool. If you don’t have any outside criterion by which to judge works, the logic goes, you’ve just got empty talk. That’s a real problem.

Untitled, Charles Long

But there is, in fact, territory that the critic can occupy which is neither classically critical nor a game of empty affirmation. The trick in dealing with contemporary art is in being able to enter the private language created by any particular artist in order to figure out what the rules are. If the artist has, indeed, created a rich enough language, then by definition it isn’t really private. Let’s take the aforementioned Charles Long. His sculptures, created of the trash collected from the L.A. River near his home, are oddly organic and meant to resemble piles of bird droppings. In an essay written for the catalog, Henriette Huldisch, one of the curators, says, “these sylphlike pieces perched on gridded structures are poetic and elegant, their underpinnings of ecological damage and renewal reconciled with such classical sculptural concerns as volume, line, and balance.”

So there is something being worked out here. In this case, Long is trying to figure out what happens to volume, line, and balance when it is subjected to the conditions of the L.A. River. The rules of sculpture look different from the perspective of a fake river filled with refuse, not much water, and then repopulated by fish and birds. But it has its own aesthetic and Long has attempted to flesh out what that looks like. It looks like thin, spindly, semi-sickly forms trying to get themselves back into shape again. Long has even gone so far as to help these forms out a bit. He has framed them partially in metal boxes, almost like the splints gardeners will create for sapling trees. There’s thus a tenderness in Long’s approach to these strange new forms. He’s trying to teach himself how to be aesthetically sensitive to this urban swamp. And then he is capturing that feel in intentional objects that express the essentials of the place and the experience of being there. He “sculpturized” the L.A. River, to coin a term.

The rest of the show can be approached in a similar manner. It is more work, admittedly, than browsing a collection of, say, 18th-century paintings that you already know how to look at. But thems the breaks. Times change. If you want to ease yourself into the process I’d recommend spending some time with Matthew Brannon’s room, mostly a collection of handmade prints. They are sharply done and a narrative of sorts emerges as you move around the room. He is helping you enter into his world of design as a way of life. Or you could try Matt Mullican’s installation, for the simple reason that he created it from a hypnotic trance. It’s an enigma that is meant to be an enigma. You don’t have to know anything, you just have to let yourself drift around in the dream world. There are loopy drawings and bulbous sculptural objects kept in cases. But the weirdness of it feels coherent, or at least it did to me. I’ve been there. For more structure, try the empty framework of Heather Rowe’s piece. It is like walking around in a room that isn’t there yet. But then you pass by little fragments of memory, old photographs glued to a piece of paper. It’s a study in how places that aren’t what they are can feel simultaneously like ruins.

Anyway, the more I thought about many of the pieces in the exhibit as languages to decipher, the more I was pleased by them and the more they made sense to me, while initially they had seemed merely arbitrary. In the end, that’s one thing the critic can still do: make a little sense. • 28 March 2008

 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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